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Friday, August 7, 2009

How to manage media medicine

In a prescient letter to the Wall Street Journal, Homer Jack Moore, MD, responds to a previous article bemoaning the ignorance of the medical profession about fibromuscular dysphasia:

“Your report reminds me of yet one more reason why medical care in the U.S. is so vastly expensive with little extra gain in any actual outcomes. While the implication in this article that American doctors know little or nothing about this 'common' disease is terrific for newspaper circulation, it results in terrible practice of medicine. FMD was fully reviewed in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2004 (in a report co-authored by Dr. Jeffrey W. Olin, no less), and in multiple other medical journals since then. I know what it is. So do my colleagues.

“But never mind that. I can now full well expect a flood of anxious young women (and gentlemen, too, even though FMD is even more rare in men than women) in my office, being among them those afflicted with migraines, aches and pains, anxiety neurosis, depression and other of life's ills, who have all now become convinced that the doctor is a dolt; that indeed, all life's problems would have long been solved had just that right test been done. And they will demand, now, that these tests be done, paid for with other people's money, of course. And I, knowing full well that there is no particular advantage to even the smallest particle of risk of being at the wrong end of some lawyerly deposition inquiry, will give them exactly what they demand.

“Alas, the overwhelming majority of these people will still have only what they ever had: migraines, aches and pains, anxiety neurosis, depression and other of life's ills. But in the vanishing few that, lo, do turn out to have unsuspected FMD, my advice to them, for the most part, will be exactly the same as it ever was: Take an aspirin every day.”

Ever feel like Dr. Moore does? Me too.

I think, honestly, that medical writers are better than ever in my lifetime. Often I get tipped off to relevant scientific developments by reading their columns.  

But then there are the cheap-shot artists just looking to make a buck. They start with a sob story, add a dash of factoids, and then bake into an epidemic. Usually an epidemic ignored by the medical establishment; something common. After all, a malady experienced by 1 out of 10,000 patients strikes 35,000 in America every year. Pretty common, right?

There are two ways to deal with this problem, to avoid wasting time playing whack-a-mole with patient questions.

My first effort, early in my career, was to browse the contents of magazines like Ladies Home Journal and Men’s Health in an attempt to stay abreast of the breaking misinformation. That didn’t last long. There was too much trash, and it was depressing.

Then I started my own information campaign. I wrote my own practice newsletter once a year – for an example, see the dig at Dr. Gott at the end of last year’s newsletter. When I read something egregious in the local newspaper, I wrote back for publication. When the Internet revolution came along, I steered patients to reliable sites.

Before too many years had passed, my patients viewed me as the authority to be reckoned with, not the hack in the magazine. I had gotten ahead of the information curve, at least in their minds. That doesn’t stop them from asking questions, but it does stop them from questioning my answers – most of the time.

Unless writing is excruciatingly painful for you, I think you will find this useful, and maybe fun. Start with the mini-lectures you give every day. We all have them. Why not write them down? Let your personality flow through.  

One of the worst pieces of advice I got in medical school was to guard my ‘professionalism’ – which meant, act like a talking robot. Balderdash. We’re all unique, and the better patients get to know us, the better they’ll sort themselves into good matches with their primary physician.

The Academy has hundreds of patient information sheets available, but they’re pretty bland. Not bad, just safe and boring. The rule seems to be “don’t say anything that stands a remote chance of being misconstrued” – like they are written by a committee. And they often advise to consult your doctor for this, check with your doctor for that – for stuff, it seems to me, ordinary commonsense people usually handle without consultation, except maybe from Grandma. If I wanted to engender dependency, I’d become a Democrat.

Frankly, when I write an information sheet it is with the intention that they won’t consult their doctor. That’s how I get an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

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About the Author

Doug Iliff, MD, is a family physician in solo practice in Topeka, Kan., and a former member of the FPM Board of Editors.

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